Here’s What the First Images from the Event Horizon Might Look Like

Researchers using the Event Horizon Telescope hope to generate images like this of Sag. A's event horizon. Image Credit: EHT.

The largest object in our night sky—by far!—is invisible to us. The object is the Super-Massive Black Hole (SMBH) at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, called Sagittarius A. But soon we may have an image of Sagittarius A’s event horizon. And that image may pose a challenge to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

Continue reading “Here’s What the First Images from the Event Horizon Might Look Like”

Einstein Was Right… Again! Successful Test of General Relativity Near a Supermassive Black Hole

In 1915, Albert Einstein published his famous Theory of General Relativity, which provided a unified description of gravity as a geometric property of space and time. This theory gave rise to the modern theory of gravitation and revolutionized our understanding of physics. Even though a century has passed since then, scientists are still conducting experiments that confirm his theory’s predictions.

Thanks to recent observations made by a team of international astronomers (known as the GRAVITY collaboration), the effects of General Relativity have been revealed using a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) for the very first time. These findings were the culmination of a 26-year campaign of observations of the SMBH at the center of the Milky Way (Sagittarius A*) using the European Southern Observatory‘s (ESO) instruments.

The study which describes the team’s findings recently appeared in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, titled “Detection of the gravitational redshift in the orbit of the star S2 near the Galactic centre massive black hole“. The study was led by Roberto Arbuto of the ESO and included members from the GRAVITY collaboration – which is led by Reinhard Genzel of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) and includes astronomers from multiple European universities and research institutes.

Annotated image of the path of the star S2 as it passes very close to the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

For the sake of their study, the team relied on data gathered by the VLT’s extremely sensitive and high-precision instruments. These included the GRAVITY astrometric and interferometry instrument, the Spectrograph for INtegral Field Observations in the Near Infrared (SINFONI) instrument, and the Nasmyth Adaptive Optics System (NAOS) – Near-Infrared Imager and Spectrograph (CONICA) instrument, which are together known as NACO.

The new infrared observations collected by these instruments allowed the team to monitor one of the stars (S2) that orbits Sagittarius A* as it passed in front of the black hole – which took place in May of 2018. At the closest point in its orbit, the star was at a distance of less than 20 billion km (12.4 billion mi) from the black hole and was moving at a speed in excess of 25 million km/h (15 million mph) – almost three percent of the speed of light.

Whereas the SINFONI instrument was used to measure the velocity of S2 towards and away from Earth, the GRAVITY instrument in the VLT Interferometer (VLTI) made extraordinarily precise measurements of the changing position of S2 in order to define the shape of its orbit. The GRAVITY instrument then created the sharp images that revealed the motion of the star as it passed close to the black hole.

The team then compared the position and velocity measurements to previous observations of S2 using other instruments. They then compared these results with predictions made by Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, General Relativity, and other theories of gravity. As expected, the new results were consistent with the predictions made by Einstein over a century ago.

As Reinhard Genzel, who in addition to being the leader of the GRAVITY collaboration was a co-author on the paper, explained in a recent ESO press release:

“This is the second time that we have observed the close passage of S2 around the black hole in our galactic center. But this time, because of much improved instrumentation, we were able to observe the star with unprecedented resolution. We have been preparing intensely for this event over several years, as we wanted to make the most of this unique opportunity to observe general relativistic effects.”

When observed with the VLT’s new instruments, the team noted an effect called gravitational redshift, where the light coming from S2 changed color as it drew closer to the black hole. This was caused by the very strong gravitational field of the black hole, which stretched the wavelength of the star’s light, causing it to shift towards the red end of the spectrum.

The change in the wavelength of light from S2 agrees precisely with what Einstein’s field equation’s predicted. As Frank Eisenhauer – a researcher from the Max Planck Institute of Extraterrestrial Physics, the Principal Investigator of GRAVITY and the SINFONI spectrograph, and a co-author on the study – indicated:

Our first observations of S2 with GRAVITY, about two years ago, already showed that we would have the ideal black hole laboratory. During the close passage, we could even detect the faint glow around the black hole on most of the images, which allowed us to precisely follow the star on its orbit, ultimately leading to the detection of the gravitational redshift in the spectrum of S2.

Whereas other tests have been performed that have confirmed Einstein’s predictions, this is the first time that the effects of General Relativity have been observed in the motion of a star around a supermassive black hole. In this respect, Einstein has been proven right once again, using one the most extreme laboratory to date! What’s more, it confirmed that tests involving relativistic effects can provide consistent results over time and space.

“Here in the Solar System we can only test the laws of physics now and under certain circumstances,” said Françoise Delplancke, head of the System Engineering Department at ESO. “So it’s very important in astronomy to also check that those laws are still valid where the gravitational fields are very much stronger.”

In the near future, another relativistic test will be possible as S2 moves away from the black hole. This is known as a Schwarzschild precession, where the star is expected to experience a small rotation in its orbit. The GRAVITY Collaboration will be monitoring S2 to observe this effect as well, once again relying on the VLT’s very precise and sensitive instruments.

As Xavier Barcons (the ESO’s Director General) indicated, this accomplishment was made possible thanks to the spirit of international cooperation represented by the GRAVITY collaboration and the instruments they helped the ESO develop:

“ESO has worked with Reinhard Genzel and his team and collaborators in the ESO Member States for over a quarter of a century. It was a huge challenge to develop the uniquely powerful instruments needed to make these very delicate measurements and to deploy them at the VLT in Paranal. The discovery announced today is the very exciting result of a remarkable partnership.”

And be sure to check out this video of the GRAVITY Collaboration’s successful test, courtesy of the ESO:

Further Reading: ESO, Astronomy and Astrophysics

There are Strange Objects Near the Center of the Galaxy. They Look Like Gas, but Behave Like Stars

During the 1970s, astronomer became aware of a massive radio source at the center of our galaxy that they later realized was a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) – which has since been named Sagittarius A*. And in a recent survey conducted by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers discovered evidence for hundreds or even thousands of black holes located in the same vicinity of the Milky Way.

But, as it turns out, the center of our galaxy has more mysteries that are just waiting to be discovered. For instance, a team of astronomers recently detected a number of “mystery objects” that appeared to be moving around the SMBH at Galactic Center. Using 12 years of data taken from the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the astronomers found objects that looked like dust clouds but behaved like stars.

The research was conducted through a collaboration between Randy Campbell at the W.M. Keck Observatory, members of the Galactic Center Group at UCLA (Anna Ciurlo, Mark Morris, and Andrea Ghez) and Rainer Schoedel of the Instituto de Astrofisica de Andalucia (CSIC) in Granada, Spain. The results of this study were presented at the 232nd American Astronomical Society Meeting during a press conference titled “The Milky Way & Active Galactic Nuclei”.

Pictured here are members of GCOI in front of Keck Observatory on Maunakea, Hawaii, during a visit last year. Credit: W.M. Keck Observatory

As Ciurlo explained in a recent W.M. Keck press release:

“These compact dusty stellar objects move extremely fast and close to our Galaxy’s supermassive black hole. It is fascinating to watch them move from year to year. How did they get there? And what will they become? They must have an interesting story to tell.”

The researchers made their discovery using 12 years of spectroscopic measurements obtained by the Keck Observatory’s OH-Suppressing Infrared Imaging Spectrograph (OSIRIS). These objects – which were designed as G3, G4, and G5 – were found while examining the gas dynamics of the center of our galaxy, and were distinguished from background emissions because of their movements.

“We started this project thinking that if we looked carefully at the complicated structure of gas and dust near the supermassive black hole, we might detect some subtle changes to the shape and velocity,” explained Randy Campbell. “It was quite surprising to detect several objects that have very distinct movement and characteristics that place them in the G-object class, or dusty stellar objects.”

Astronomers first discovered G-objects in proximity to Sagittarius A* more than a decade ago – G1 was discovered in 2004 and G2 in 2012. Initially, both were thought to be gas clouds until they made their closest approach to the supermassive black hole and survived. Ordinarily, the SMBHs gravitational pull would shred gas clouds apart, but this did not happen with G1 and G2.

3-D spectro-imaging data cube produced using software called OSIRIS-Volume Display ( OsrsVol) to separate G3, G4, and G5 from the background emission. Credit: W.M. Keck Observatory

Because these newly discovered infrared sources (G3, G4, and G5) shared the physical characteristics of G1 and G2, the team concluded that they could potentially be G-objects. What makes G-objects unusual is their “puffiness”, where they appear to be cloaked in a layer of dust and gas that makes them difficult to detect. Unlike other stars, astronomers only see a glowing envelope of dust when looking at G-objects.

To see these objects clearly through their obscuring envelope of dust and gas, Campbell developed a tool called the OSIRIS-Volume Display (OsrsVol). As Campbell described it:

“OsrsVol allowed us to isolate these G-objects from the background emission and analyze the spectral data in three dimensions: two spatial dimensions, and the wavelength dimension that provides velocity information. Once we were able to distinguish the objects in a 3-D data cube, we could then track their motion over time relative to the black hole.”

UCLA Astronomy Professor Mark Morris, a co-principal investigator and fellow member of UCLA’s Galactic Center Orbits Initiative (GCOI), was also involved in the study. As he indicated:

“If they were gas clouds, G1 and G2 would not have been able to stay intact. Our view of the G-objects is that they are bloated stars – stars that have become so large that the tidal forces exerted by the central black hole can pull matter off of their stellar atmospheres when the stars get close enough, but have a stellar core with enough mass to remain intact. The question is then, why are they so large?

Chandra data (above, graph) on J0806 show that its X-rays vary with a period of 321.5 seconds, or slightly more than five minutes. This implies that the X-ray source is a binary star system where two white dwarf stars are orbiting each other (above, illustration) only 50,000 miles apart, making it one of the smallest known binary orbits in the Galaxy. According to Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, such a system should produce gravitational waves - ripples in space-time - that carry energy away from the system and cause the stars to move closer together. X-ray and optical observations indicate that the orbital period of this system is decreasing by 1.2 milliseconds every year, which means that the stars are moving closer at a rate of 2 feet per year.
A binary star system potentially on the verge of a stellar collision. Credit: Chandra

After examining the objects, the team noticed that there was a great deal of energy was emanating from them, more than what would be expected from typical stars. As a result, they theorized that these G-objects are the result of stellar mergers, which occur when two stars that orbit each other (aka. binaries) crash into each other. This would have been caused by the long-term gravitational influence of the SMBH.

The resulting single object would be distended (i.e. swell up) over the course of millions of years before it finally settled down and appeared like a normal-sized star. The combined objects that resulted from these violent mergers could explain where the excess energy came from and why they behave like stars do. As Andrea Ghez, the founder and director of GCOI, explained:

“This is what I find most exciting. If these objects are indeed binary star systems that have been driven to merge through their interaction with the central supermassive black hole, this may provide us with insight into a process which may be responsible for the recently discovered stellar mass black hole mergers that have been detected through gravitational waves.”

Looking ahead, the team plans to continue following the size and shape of the G-objects’ orbits in the hopes of determining how they formed. They will be paying especially close attention when these stellar objects make their closest approach to Sagittarius A*, since this will allow them to further observe their behavior and see if they remain intact (as G1 and G2 did).

This will take a few decades, with G3 making its closest pass in 20 years and G4 and G5 taking decades longer. In the meantime, the team hopes to learn more about these “puffy” star-like objects by following their dynamical evolution using Keck’s OSIRIS instrument. As Ciurlo stated:

“Understanding G-objects can teach us a lot about the Galactic Center’s fascinating and still mysterious environment. There are so many things going on that every localized process can help explain how this extreme, exotic environment works.”

And be sure to check out this video of the presentation, which takes place from 18:30 until 30:20:

Further Reading: Keck Observatory

This is What Happens When a Black Hole Gobbles up a Star

At the center of our galaxy resides a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) known as Sagittarius A. Based on ongoing observations, astronomers have determined that this SMBH measures 44 million km (27.34 million mi) in diameter and has an estimated mass of 4.31 million Solar Masses. On occasion, a star will wander too close to Sag A and be torn apart in a violent process known as a tidal disruption event (TDE).

These events cause the release of bright flares of radiation, which let astronomers know that a star has been consumed. Unfortunately, for decades, astronomers have been unable to distinguish these events from other galactic phenomena. But thanks to a new study from by an international team of astrophysicists, astronomers now have a unified model that explains recent observations of these extreme events.

The study – which recently appeared in the Astrophysical Journal Letters under the title “A Unified Model for Tidal Disruption Events” – was led by Dr. Jane Lixin Dai, a physicist with the Niels Bohr Institute’s Dark Cosmology Center. She was joined by members from University of Maryland’s Joint Space-Science Institute and the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC).

Illustration of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF
Illustration of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

As Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz – the professor and chair of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, the Niels Bohr Professor at the University of Copenhagen, and a co-author on the paper – explained in a UCSC press release:

“Only in the last decade or so have we been able to distinguish TDEs from other galactic phenomena, and the new model will provide us with the basic framework for understanding these rare events.”

In most galaxies, SMBHs do not actively consume any material and therefore do not emit any light, which distinguishes them from galaxies that have Active Galactic Nuclei (AGNs). Tidal disruption events are therefore rare, occurring only once about every 10,000 years in a typical galaxy. However, when a star does get torn apart, it results in the release of an intense amount of radiation. As Dr. Dai explained:

“It is interesting to see how materials get their way into the black hole under such extreme conditions. As the black hole is eating the stellar gas, a vast amount of radiation is emitted. The radiation is what we can observe, and using it we can understand the physics and calculate the black hole properties. This makes it extremely interesting to go hunting for tidal disruption events.”

Illustration of emissions from a tidal disruption event shows in cross section what happens when the material from a disrupted star is devoured by a black hole. Credit: Jane Lixin Dai

In the past few years, a few dozen candidates for tidal disruption events (TDEs) have been detected using wide-field optical and UV transient surveys as well as X-ray telescopes. While the physics are expected to be the same for all TDEs, astronomers have noted that a few distinct classes of TDEs appear to exist. While some emit mostly x-rays, others emit mostly visible and ultraviolet light.

As a result, theorists have struggled to understand the diverse properties observed and create a coherent model that can explain them all. For the sake of their model, Dr. Dai and her colleagues combined elements from general relativity, magnetic fields, radiation, and gas hydrodynamics. The team also relied on state-of-the-art computational tools and some recently-acquired large computer clusters funded by the Villum Foundation for Jens Hjorth (head of DARK Cosmology Center), the U.S. National Science Foundation and NASA.

Using the model that resulted, the team concluded that it is the viewing angle of the observer that accounts for the differences in observation.  Essentially, different galaxies are oriented randomly with respect to observers on Earth, who see different aspects of TDEs depending on their orientation. As Ramirez-Ruiz explained:

“It is like there is a veil that covers part of a beast. From some angles we see an exposed beast, but from other angles we see a covered beast. The beast is the same, but our perceptions are different.”

Artist’s impression of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. Credit: lsst.org

In the coming years, a number of planned survey projects are expected to provide much more data on TDEs, which will help expand the field of research into this phenomena. These include the Young Supernova Experiment (YSE) transient survey, which will be led by the DARK Cosmology Center at the Niels Bohr Institute and UC Santa Cruz, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescopes (LSST) being built in Chile.

According to Dr. Dai, this new model shows what astronomers can expect to see when viewing TDEs from different angles and will allow them to fit different events into a coherent framework. “We will observe hundreds to thousands of tidal disruption events in a few years,” she said. “This will give us a lot of ‘laboratories’ to test our model and use it to understand more about black holes.”

This improved understanding of how black holes occasionally consume stars will also provide additional tests for general relativity, gravitational wave research, and help astronomers to learn more about the evolution of galaxies.

Further Reading: UCSC, Astrophysical Journal Letters

Evidence for Thousands of Black Holes Buzzing Around the Center of the Milky Way

Since the 1970s, astronomers have understood that a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) resides at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Located about 26,000 light-years from Earth between the Sagittarius and Scorpius constellations, this black hole has come to be known as Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*). Measuring 44 million km across, this object is roughly 4 million times as massive as our Sun and exerts a tremendous gravitational pull.

Since that time, astronomers have discovered that most massive galaxies have SMBHs at their core, which is what separates those that have an Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) from those that don’t. But thanks to a recent survey conducted using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers have discovered evidence for hundreds or even thousands of black holes located near the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.

The study which described their findings was recently published in the journal Nature under the title “A density cusp of quiescent X-ray binaries in the central parsec of the Galaxy“. The study was led by Chuck Hailey, the Pupin Professor of Physics and the Co-Director of the Columbia Astrophysics Laboratory (CAL) at Columbia University, and including members from the Instituto de Astrofísica at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The center of the Milky Way Galaxy, with X-ray binaries circled in red, other X-ray sources circled in yellow, and Sagittarius A* circled in blue at the center. Credit: NASA/CXC/Columbia University/C. Hailey et al.

Using Chandra data, the team searched for X-ray binaries containing black holes that were in the vicinity of Sgr A*. To recap, black holes are not detectable in visible light. However, black holes (or neutron stars) that are locked in close orbits with a star will pull material from their companions, which will then be accreted onto the black holes’ disks and heated up to millions of degrees.

This will result in the release of X-rays which can then be detected, hence why these systems are called “X-ray binaries”. Using Chandra data, the team sought out X-ray of sources that were located within roughly 12 light years of Sgr A*. They then selected sources with X-ray spectra similar to those of known X-ray binaries, which emit relatively large amounts of low-energy X-rays.

Using this method, they detected fourteen X-ray binaries within about three light years of Sgr A*, all of which contained stellar-mass black holes (between 5 and 30 times the mass of our Sun). Two of these sources had been identified by previous studies and were eliminated from the analysis, while the remaining twelve (circled in red in the image above) were newly-discovered.

Other sources which relatively large amounts of high energy X-rays (labeled in yellow) were believed to be binaries containing white dwarfs. Hailey and his colleagues concluded that the majority of the dozen X-ray binaries were likely to contain black holes, based on their variability and the fact that their X-ray emissions over the course of several years was different from what is expected from binaries containing neutron stars.

Artist”s impression of a black hole binary, consisting of a black hole siphoning material from its companion. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Given that only the brightest X-ray binaries containing black holes are likely to be detectable around Sgr A* (given its distance from Earth), Hailey and his colleagues concluded that this detection implies the existence of a much larger population. By their estimates, there could be at least 300 and as many as one thousand stellar-mass black holes present around Sgr A*.

These findings confirmed what theoretical studies on the dynamics of stars in galaxies have indicated in the past. According to these studies, a large population of stellar mass black holes (as many as 20,000) could drift inward over the course of millions of years and collect around an SMBH. However, the recent analysis conducted by Hailey and his colleagues was the first observational evidence of black holes congregating near Sgr A*.

Naturally, the authors acknowledge that there are other explanations for the X-ray emissions they detected. This includes the possibility that half of the dozen sources they observed are millisecond pulsars – very rapidly rotating neutron stars with strong magnetic fields. However, based on their observations, Hailey and his team strongly favor the black hole explanation.

In addition, a follow-up study conducted by Aleksey Generozov (et al.) of Columbia University – titled “An Overabundance of Black Hole X-Ray Binaries in the Galactic Center from Tidal Captures” – indicated that there could be as many as 10,000 to 40,000 black holes binaries at the center of our galaxy. According to this study, these binaries would be the result of companions being captured by black holes.

In February 2016, LIGO detected gravity waves for the first time. As this artist's illustration depicts, the gravitational waves were created by merging black holes. The third detection just announced was also created when two black holes merged. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.
Artist’s impression of merging binary black holes. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.

In addition to revealing much about the dynamics of stars in our galaxy, this study has implications for the emerging field of gravitational wave (GW) research. Essentially, by knowing how many black holes reside at the center of galaxies (which will periodically merge with one another), astronomers will be able to better predict how many gravitational wave events are associated with them.

From this, astronomers could create predictive models about when and how GW events are likely to happen, and well as discerning what role they may play in galactic evolution. And with next-generation instruments – like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the ESA’s Advanced Telescope for High Energy Astrophysics (ATHENA) – astronomers will be able to determine exactly how many black holes reside near the center of our galaxy.

 

 

Further Reading: NASA

Amazing High Resolution Image of the Core of the Milky Way, a Region with Surprisingly Low Star Formation Compared to Other Galaxies

Compared to some other galaxies in our Universe, the Milky Way is a rather subtle character. In fact, there are galaxies that are a thousands times as luminous as the Milky Way, owing to the presence of warm gas in the galaxy’s Central Molecular Zone (CMZ). This gas is heated by massive bursts of star formation that surround the Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) at the nucleus of the galaxy.

The core of the Milky Way also has a SMBH (Sagittarius A*) and all the gas it needs to form new stars. But for some reason, star formation in our galaxy’s CMZ is less than the average. To address this ongoing mystery, an international team of astronomers conducted a large and comprehensive study of the CMZ to search for answers as to why this might be.

The study, titled “Star formation in a high-pressure environment: an SMA view of the Galactic Centre dust ridge” recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The study was led by Daniel Walker of the Joint ALMA Observatory and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, and included members from multiple observatories, universities and research institutes.

A false color Spitzer infrared image of the Milky Way’s Central Molecular Zone (CMZ). Credit: Spitzer/NASA/CfA

For the sake of their study, the team relied on the Submillimeter Array (SMA) radio interferometer, which is located atop Maunakea in Hawaii. What they found was a sample of thirteen high-mass cores in the CMZ’s “dust ridge” that could be young stars in the initial phase of development. These cores ranged in mass from 50 to 2150 Solar Masses and have radii of 0.1 – 0.25 parsecs (0.326 – 0.815 light-years).

They also noted the presence of two objects that appeared to be previously unknown young, high-mass protostars. As they state in their study, all of this indicated that stars in CMZ had about the same rate of formation as those in the galactic disc, despite their being vast pressure differences:

“All appear to be young (pre-UCHII), meaning that they are prime candidates for representing the initial conditions of high-mass stars and sub-clusters. We compare all of the detected cores with high-mass cores and clouds in the Galactic disc and find that they are broadly similar in terms of their masses and sizes, despite being subjected to external pressures that are several orders of magnitude greater.”

To determine that the external pressure in the CMZ was greater, the team observed spectral lines of the molecules formaldehyde and methyl cyanide to measure the temperature of the gas and its kinetics. These indicated that the gas environment was highly turbulent, which led them to the conclusion that the turbulent environment of the CMZ is responsible for inhibiting star formation there.

A radio image from the NSF’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array showing the center of our  galaxy. Credit: NSF/VLA/UCLA/M. Morris et al.

As they state in their study, these results were consistent with their previous hypothesis:

“The fact that >80 percent of these cores do not show any signs of star-forming activity in such a high-pressure environment leads us to conclude that this is further evidence for an increased critical density threshold for star formation in the CMZ due to turbulence.”

So in the end, the rate of star formation in a CMZ is not only dependent on their being a lot of gas and dust, but on the nature of the gas environment itself. These results could inform future studies of not only the Milky Way, but of other galaxies as well – particularly when it comes to the relationship that exists between Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs), star formation, and the evolution of galaxies.

For decades, astronomers have studied the central regions of galaxies in the hopes of determining how this relationship works. And in recent years, astronomers have come up with conflicting results, some of which indicate that star formation is arrested by the presence of SMBHs while others show no correlation.

In addition, further examinations of SMBHs and Active Galactic Nuclei (AGNs) have shown that there may be no correlation between the mass of a galaxy and the mass of its central black hole – another theory that astronomers previously subscribed to.

As such, understanding how and why star formation appears to be different in galaxies like the Milky Way could help us to unravel these other mysteries. From that, a better understanding of how stars and galaxies evolved over the course of cosmic history is sure to emerge.

Further Reading: CfA, MNRAS

Astronomers Observe the Rotating Accretion Disk Around the Supermassive Black Hole in M77

During the 1970s, scientists confirmed that radio emissions coming from the center of our galaxy were due to the presence of a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH). Located about 26,000 light-years from Earth between the Sagittarius and Scorpius constellation, this feature came to be known as Sagittarius A*. Since that time, astronomers have come to understand that most massive galaxies have an SMBH at their center.

What’s more, astronomers have come to learn that black holes in these galaxies are surrounded by massive rotating toruses of dust and gas, which is what accounts for the energy they put out. However, it was only recently that a team of astronomers, using the the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), were able to capture an image of the rotating dusty gas torus around the supermassive black hole of M77.

The study which details their findings recently appeared in the Astronomical Journal Letters under the title “ALMA Reveals an Inhomogeneous Compact Rotating Dense Molecular Torus at the NGC 1068 Nucleus“. The study was conducted by a team of Japanese researchers from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan – led by Masatoshi Imanishi – with assistance from Kagoshima University.

The central region of the spiral galaxy M77. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope imaged the distribution of stars. ALMA revealed the distribution of gas in the very center of the galaxy. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/Imanishi et al./NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and A. van der Hoeven

Like most massive galaxies, M77 has an Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN), where dust and gas are being accreted onto its SMBH, leading to higher than normal luminosity. For some time, astronomers have puzzled over the curious relationship that exists between SMBHs and galaxies. Whereas more massive galaxies have larger SMBHs, host galaxies are still 10 billion times larger than their central black hole.

This naturally raises questions about how two objects of vastly different scales could directly affect each other. As a result, astronomers have sought to study AGN is order to determine how galaxies and black holes co-evolve. For the sake of their study, the team conducted high-resolution observations of the central region of M77, a barred spiral galaxy located about 47 million light years from Earth.

Using ALMA, the team imaged the area around M77’s center and were able to resolve a compact gaseous structure with a radius of 20 light-years. As expected, the team found that the compact structure was rotating around the galaxies central black hole. As Masatoshi Imanishi explained in an ALMA press release:

“To interpret various observational features of AGNs, astronomers have assumed rotating donut-like structures of dusty gas around active supermassive black holes. This is called the ‘unified model’ of AGN. However, the dusty gaseous donut is very tiny in appearance. With the high resolution of ALMA, now we can directly see the structure.”

Motion of gas around the supermassive black hole in the center of M77. The gas moving toward us is shown in blue and that moving away from us is in red. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Imanishi et al.

In the past, astronomers have observed the center of M77, but no one has been able to resolve the rotating torus at its center until now. This was made possible thanks to the superior resolution of ALMA, as well as the selection of molecular emissions lines. These emissions lines include hydrogen cyanide (HCN) and formyl ions (HCO+), which emit microwaves only in dense gas, and carbon monoxide – which emits microwaves under a variety of conditions.

The observations of these emission lines confirmed another prediction made by the team, which was that the torus would be very dense. “Previous observations have revealed the east-west elongation of the dusty gaseous torus,” said Imanishi. “The dynamics revealed from our ALMA data agrees exactly with the expected rotational orientation of the torus.”

However, their observations also indicated that the distribution of gas around an SMBH is more complicated that what a simple unified model suggests. According to this model, the rotation of the torus would follow the gravity of the black hole; but what Imanishi and his team found indicated that gas and dust in the torus also exhibit signs of highly random motion.

These could be an indication that the AGN at the center of M77 had a violent history, which could include merging with a small galaxy in the past. In short, the team’s observations indicate that galactic mergers may have a significant impact on how AGNs form and behave. In this respect, their observations of M77s torus are already providing clues as to the galaxy’s history and evolution.

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope captured this stunning infrared image of the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, where the black hole Sagitarrius A resides. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The study of SMBHs, while intensive, is also very challenging. On the one hand, the closest SMBH (Sagitarrius A*) is relatively quiet, with only a small amount of gas accreting onto it. At the same time, it is located at the center of our galaxy, where it is obscured by intervening dust, gas and stars. As such, astronomers are forced to look to other galaxies to study how SMBHs and their galaxies co-exist.

And thanks to decades of study and improvements in instrumentation, scientists are beginning to get a clear glimpse of these mysterious regions for the first time. By being able to study them in detail, astronomers are also gaining valuable insight into how such massive black holes and their ringed structures could coexist with their galaxies over time.

Further Reading: ALMA, arXiv

Astronomers Figure Out How Black Holes Can Blast Out Relativistic Jets of Material Across Light Years of Space

Black holes have been an endless source of fascination ever since Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity predicted their existence. In the past 100 years, the study of black holes has advanced considerably, but the awe and mystery of these objects remains. For instance, scientists have noted that in some cases, black holes have massive jets of charged particles emanating from them that extend for millions of light years.

These “relativistic jets” – so-named because they propel charged particles at a fraction of the speed of light – have puzzled astronomers for years. But thanks to a recent study conducted by an international team of researchers, new insight has been gained into these jets. Consistent with General Relativity, the researchers showed that these jets gradually precess (i.e. change direction) as a result of space-time being dragged into the rotation of the black hole.

Their study, titled “Formation of Precessing Jets by Tilted Black Hole Discs in 3D General Relativistic MHD Simulations“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The team consisted of members from the Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy at the University of Amsterdam and a professor from the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA) at Northwestern University.

For the sake of their study, the team conducted simulations using the Blue Waters supercomputer at the University of Illinois. The simulations they conducted were the first ever to model the behavior of relativistic jets coming from Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs). With close to a billion computational cells, it was also the highest-resolution simulation of an accreting black hole ever achieved.

As Alexander Tchekhovskoy, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, explained in a recent Northwestern Now press release:

“Understanding how rotating black holes drag the space-time around them and how this process affects what we see through the telescopes remains a crucial, difficult-to-crack puzzle. Fortunately, the breakthroughs in code development and leaps in supercomputer architecture are bringing us ever closer to finding the answers.”

Much like all Supermassive Black Holes, rapidly spinning SMBHs regularly engulf (aka. accrete) matter. However, rapidly spinning black holes are also known for the way they emit energy in the form of relativistic jets. The matter that feeds these black holes forms a rotating disk around them – aka. an accretion disk – which is characterized by hot, energized gas and magnetic field lines.

It is the presence of these field lines that allows black holes to propel energy in the form of these jets. Because these jets are so large, they are easier to study than the black holes themselves. In so doing, astronomers are able to understand how quickly the direction of these jets change, which reveals things about the rotation of the black holes themselves – such as the orientation and size of their rotating disks.

Advanced computer simulations are necessary when it comes to the study of black holes, largely because they are not observable in visible light and are typically very far away. For instance, the closest SMBH to Earth is Sagittarius A*, which is located about 26,000 light-years away at the center of our galaxy. As such, simulations are the only way to determine how a highly complex system like a black hole operates.

In previous simulations, scientists operated under the assumption that black hole disks were aligned. However, most SMBHs have been found to have tilted disks – i.e. the disks rotate around a separate axis than the black hole itself. This study was therefore seminal in that it showed how disks can change direction relative to their black hole, leading to precessing jets that periodically change their direction.

This was previously unknown because of the incredibly amount of computing power that is needed to construct 3-D simulations of the region surrounding a rapidly spinning black hole. With the support of a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, the team was able to achieve this by using the Blue Waters, one of the largest supercomputers in the world.

Detection of an unusually bright X-Ray flare from Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/Stanford/I. Zhuravleva et al.

With this supercomputer at their disposal, the team was able to construct the first black hole simulation code, which they accelerated using graphical processing units (GPUs). Thanks to this combination, the team was able to carry out simulations that had the highest level of resolution ever achieved – i.e. close to a billion computational cells. As Tchekhovskoy explained:

“The high resolution allowed us, for the first time, to ensure that small-scale turbulent disk motions are accurately captured in our models. To our surprise, these motions turned out to be so strong that they caused the disk to fatten up and the disk precession to stop. This suggests that precession can come about in bursts.”

The precession of relativistic jets could explain why light fluctuations have been observed coming from around black holes in the past – which are known as quasi-periodic oscillations (QPOs). These beams, which were first discovered by Michiel van der Klis (one of the co-authors on the study), operate in much the same way as a quasar’s beams, which appear to have a strobing effect.

This study is one of many that is being conducting on rotating black holes around the world, the purpose of which is to gain a better understanding about recent discoveries like gravitational waves, which are caused by the merger of black holes. These studies are also being applied to observations from the Event Horizon Telescope, which captured the first images of Sagittarius A*’s shadow. What they will reveal is sure to excite and amaze, and potentially deepen the mystery of black holes.

In the past century, the study of black holes has advanced considerably – from the purely theoretical, to indirect studies of the effects they have on surrounding matter, to the study of gravitational waves themselves. Perhaps one day, we might actually be able to study them directly or (if it’s not too much to hope for) peer directly inside them!

Further Reading: Northwestern Now, MNRAS

Supermassive Black Holes can Turn Star Formation On and Off in a Large Galaxy

In the 1970s, astronomers discovered that a particularly large black hole (Sagittarius A*) existed at the center of our galaxy. In time, they came to understand that similar Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs) existed in the center of most massive galaxies. The presence of these black holes was also what differentiated galaxies that had particularly luminous cores – aka. Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) – from those that didn’t.

Since that time, astronomers and cosmologists have pondered what role SMBHs have on galactic evolution, with some venturing that they have a profound impact on star formation. And thanks to a recent study by an international team of astronomers, there is now direct evidence for a correlation between and SMBH and a galaxy’s star formation. In fact, the team demonstrated that a black hole’s mass could determine when star formation in a galaxy will end.

The study, titled “Black-Hole-Regulated Star Formation in Massive Galaxies“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature. Led by Ignacio Martín-Navarro, a Marie Curie Fellow at the University of California Observatories, the study team also consisted of members from the Max-Planck Institute for Astronomy and the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias.

The primary mirror of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) at McDonald Observatory. The mirror is made up of 91 segments, and has an effective aperture of 9.2 meters. Credit: Marty Harris/McDonald Observatory

For the sake of their study, the team relied on data gathered the Hobby-Eberle Telescope Massive Galaxy Survey in 2015. This systematic survey used the 10m Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) at the McDonald Observatory to conduct an optical long-slit spectroscopic survey of over 1000 galaxies. This survey not only provided spectra for these galaxies, but also produced direct mass measurements of the central black holes for 74 of these galaxies.

Using this data, Martín-Navarro and his colleagues found the first observational evidence for a direct correlation between the mass of a galaxy’s central black hole and its history of star formation. While astrophysicists have been operating under this assumption for decades, the proof was missing until now. As Jean Brodie, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and a coauthor of the paper, said in a UCSC press release:

“We’ve been dialing in the feedback to make the simulations work out, without really knowing how it happens. This is the first direct observational evidence where we can see the effect of the black hole on the star formation history of the galaxy.”

Roughly 15 years ago, the correlation between a SMBHs mass and the total mass of a galaxy’s stars was discovered, which led to a major unresolved question in astrophysical circles. While this correlation appeared to be a central feature of galaxies, it was unclear as to what could have caused it. How could the mass of a comparatively small and central black hole be related to the mass of billions of stars distributed throughout a galaxy?

The galaxy NGC 660 – in this and other galaxies, the rate at which new stars are formed appears to be linked to the evolution of the galaxy’s central black hole. Credit: ESA/Hubble/NASA

One possible explanation was that more massive galaxies collected larger amounts of gas, thus resulting in more stars and a more massive central black hole. However, astrophysicists also believed their was a feedback mechanism at work, where growing black holes inhibited the formation of stars in their vicinity. In short, when matter accretes on a central black hole, it sends out a tremendous amount of energy in the form of radiation and particle jets.

If this energy is transferred to gas and dust surrounding the core of the galaxy, stars will be less likely to form in this region since gas and dust need to be cold in order to undergo areas of collapse. For years, feedback of this kind has been included in cosmological simulations to explain the observed star-formation rates in galaxies. According to these same simulations, minus this mechanism, galaxies would form far more stars than have been observed.

However, no direct evidence of this phenomena had previously been available. The first step to obtaining some was to reproduce the stellar formation histories of the 74 target galaxies used for the study. Martín-Navarro and his colleagues did this by subjecting spectra obtained from each of these galaxies to computational techniques that looked for the best combination of stellar populations to fit the data.

In so doing, the team was able to reconstruct the history of star formation within the target galaxies for the past 12.5 billion years. After examining these histories, they noticed some predictable results, but also some rather significant differences. For starters, as predicted, the regions of around the galaxies’ central black holes demonstrated a clear dampening influence on the rate of star formation.

Artist’s concept of the most distant supermassive black hole ever discovered. It is part of a quasar from just 690 million years after the Big Bang. Credit: Robin Dienel/Carnegie Institution for Science

As predicted, there was also a clear correlation between the mass of the central black holes and stellar mass in these galaxies. However, the team also noted that in cases where stellar mass was slightly smaller than expected (relative to the mass of their central black holes), star formation rates were lower. In some other cases, galaxies had larger-than-expected stellar masses (again, relative to their black holes) and their star formation rates were higher.

This correlation was not only more consistent than that observed between black hole mass and stellar mass, it occurred independently of other factors (such as shape or density). As Martín-Navaro explained:

“For galaxies with the same mass of stars but different black hole mass in the center, those galaxies with bigger black holes were quenched earlier and faster than those with smaller black holes. So star formation lasted longer in those galaxies with smaller central black holes.”

They also noted that this correlation extends into the deep past, where the galaxies with supermassive central black holes have been consistently producing a comparatively low rate of stars for the past 12.5 billion years. This constitutes the first strong evidence for a direct, long-term connection between star formation and the existence of a central black hole in a galaxy.

Close-up of star near a supermassive black hole (artist’s impression). Credit: ESA/Hubble, ESO, M. Kornmesser

Another interesting takeaway from the study was the way it addressed possible correlations between AGN luminosity and star formation. In the past, other researchers have sought to find evidence of a link between the two, but without success. According to Martín-Navarro and his team, this may be because the time scales are incredibly different. Whereas star formation occurs over the course of eons, outbursts from AGNs occur over shorter intervals.

What’s more, AGNs are highly variable and their properties are dependent on a number of factors relating to their black holes – i.e. size, mass, rate of accretion, etc. We used black hole mass as a proxy for the energy put into the galaxy by the AGN, because accretion onto more massive black holes leads to more energetic feedback from active galactic nuclei, which would quench star formation faster,” said Martin-Navarro.

Looking ahead, the team hopes to conduct further research and determine exactly how central black holes arrest star formation. At present, the possibility that it could be due to radiation or jets of gas heating up surrounding matter are not definitive. As Aaron Romanowsky, an astronomer at San Jose State University and UC Observatories, indicated:

“There are different ways a black hole can put energy out into the galaxy, and theorists have all kinds of ideas about how quenching happens, but there’s more work to be done to fit these new observations into the models.”

Part of determining how the Universe came to be is knowing what mechanisms were at play and the extent of their roles. With this latest study, astrophysicists and cosmologists can take comfort in the knowledge that they’ve been getting it right – at least in this case!

Further Reading: UCSC, MPIA, Nature

Mysterious Filament is Stretching Down Towards the Milky Way’s Supermassive Black Hole

The core of the Milky Way Galaxy has always been a source of mystery and fascination to astronomers. This is due in part to the fact that our Solar System is embedded within the disk of the Milky Way – the flattened region that extends outwards from the core. This has made seeing into the bulge at the center of our galaxy rather difficult. Nevertheless, what we’ve been able to learn over the years has proven to be immensely interesting.

For instance, in the 1970s, astronomers became aware of the Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) at the center of our galaxy, known as Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*). In 2016, astronomers also noticed a curved filament that appeared to be extending from Sgr A*. Using a pioneering technique, a team of astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) recently produced the highest-quality images of this structure to date.

The study which details their findings, titled “A Nonthermal Radio Filament Connected to the Galactic Black Hole?“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. In it, the team describes how they used the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s (NRAO) Very Large Array to investigate the non-thermal radio filament (NTF) near Sagittarius A* – now known as the Sgr A West Filament (SgrAWF).

Detection of an unusually bright X-Ray flare from Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/Stanford/I. Zhuravleva et al.

As Mark Morris – a professor of astronomy at the UCLA and the lead authority the study – explained in a CfA press release:

“With our improved image, we can now follow this filament much closer to the Galaxy’s central black hole, and it is now close enough to indicate to us that it must originate there. However, we still have more work to do to find out what the true nature of this filament is.”

After examining the filament, the research team came up with three possible explanations for its existence. The first is that the filament is the result of inflowing gas, which would produce a rotating, vertical tower of magnetic field as it approaches and threads Sgr A*’s event horizon. Within this tower, particles would produce radio emissions as they are accelerated and spiral in around magnetic field lines extending from the black hole.

The second possibility is that the filament is a theoretical object known as a cosmic string. These are basically long, extremely thin cosmic structures that carry mass and electric currents that are hypothesized to migrate from the centers of galaxies. In this case, the string could have been captured by Sgr A* once it came too close and a portion crossed its event horizon.

The third and final possibility is that there is no real association between the filament and Sgr A* and the positioning and direction it has shown is merely coincidental. This would imply that there are many such filaments in the Universe and this one just happened to be found near the center of our galaxy. However, the team is confident that such a coincidence is highly unlikely.

Labelled image of the center of our galaxy, showing the mysterious radio filament & the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*). Credit: NSF/VLA/UCLA/M. Morris et al.

As Jun-Hui Zhao of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, and a co-author on the paper, said:

“Part of the thrill of science is stumbling across a mystery that is not easy to solve. While we don’t have the answer yet, the path to finding it is fascinating. This result is motivating astronomers to build next generation radio telescopes with cutting edge technology.”

All of these scenarios are currently being investigated, and each poses its own share of implications. If the first possibility is true – in which the filament is caused by particles being ejected by Sgr A* – then astronomers would be able to gleam vital information about how magnetic fields operate in such an environment. In short, it could show that near an SMBH, magnetic fields are orderly rather than chaotic.

This could be proven by examining particles farther away from Sgr A* to see if they are less energetic than those that are closer to it. The second possibility, the cosmic string theory, could be tested by conducting follow-up observations with the VLA to determine if the position of the filament is shifting and its particles are moving at a fraction of the speed of light.

If the latter should prove to be the case, it would constitute the first evidence that theoretical cosmic strings actually exists. It would also allow astronomers to conduct further tests of General Relativity, examining how gravity works under such conditions and how space-time is affected. The team also noted that, even if the filament is not physically connected to Sgr A*, the bend in the filament is still rather telling.

In short, the bend appears to be coincide with a shock wave, the kind that would be caused by an exploding star. This could mean that one of the massive stars which surrounds Sgr A* exploded in proximity to the filament in the past, producing the necessary shock wave that altered the course of the inflowing gas and its magnetic field. All of these mysteries will be the subject of follow-up surveys conducted with the VLA.

As co-author Miller Goss from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in New Mexico (and a co-author on the study) said, “We will keep hunting until we have a solid explanation for this object. And we are aiming to next produce even better, more revealing images.”

Further Reading: CfA, AJL